Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fires and cool spring have minimal impact on local animals

Posted By on Tue, Jul 16, 2013 at 2:59 PM

An example of the mosaic pattern left by wildfires.
  • Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • An example of the mosaic pattern left by wildfires.

There seemed to be an overabundance of spotted fawns this late into the summer, so we wondered if the cool, long spring, coupled with the rash of fires, has affected the gestation and birthing cycles this year. We spoke to Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton, who covers the southeast region including Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Lamar and Salida.

Hampton was quick to note that the weather and the fires are completely separate issues. Yes, heavy snowfalls late in the season can cause a two-week swing, but more than that is unusual. April did have strange snow patterns, but, he says, “We didn’t see anything that was excessively altering to the biological patterns of some of these species — at least deer, elk, and pronghorn.” That being said, birds’ nesting behavior can be impacted, but, if a shift is seen, it is almost always short-term.

As for if the slew of recent fires have had any demonstrable impact, the answer's not so easy. “They very well could have on a localized level,” Hampton says. The stress caused could have hurt breeding efforts, but either way what we see on a localized level does not affect the overall, state-wide population level.

“Every year there is something that may impact local deer and elk populations: late frosts or late snowstorms; high water or low water; drought conditions," he says. "We typically don’t see large-scale disturbances in a specific locality, though.”

Fish populations get the brunt of the fire’s negative influence, as ash floods the streams and rivers, not only floating into their gills, but cementing as it settles. This also disrupts the insects — and, thus, food — and takes away places to lay eggs. If you go back to the Hayman Fire, there's been a clear impact on fish populations even years afterwards.

Part of the reason fire has a less measurable impact on other species can be traced back to the evolution of our local fauna and flora. “Fire is interesting, because people see fire in the media: What they see is huge walls of flames and destroyed homes," says Hampton. "Wildlife, however, have evolved in a system where wildfire is an important part of that system.”

It has only been within the past half-century that we have developed the technology to put out fires on the scale of the ones we have recently witnessed. Prior to planes dropping water, winter was the only end to forest fires. “That’s the natural system,” Hampton explains. “Wildlife learned in that system — many benefit from fire.”

In the local ecosystem, trees are less important than shrubbery for animals. Fires also do not burn the entire landscape; they tend to leave behind a mosaic-pattern where islands of green still offer protection during the fire, and places to forage after.

Three days after a fire event, the ash is nitrogen-rich like fertilizer, so the terrain will immediately green up with any rain. Hampton mentioned animals they had tracked during one of last year’s fires; most never left the perimeter of the fire because there was no reason to. “The media’s job is to show the power and devastation of the fire," he says. However: "There’s a lot more to it than big walls of flame.”

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